Many engineers and marketing wizards have long argued that racing does produce useful spin-offs of value to us common folk, citing high-speed wet traction tread designs, cooler running rubber compounds, high-torque bead locks and other innovations that first appeared on race tires.
This technology translation concept seems credible enough — but having been close to this type of action for many of my active career years, the reasons given for going racing sometimes smack of justification for having fun and getting paid for it. Many corporate racing programs are essentially written off as advertising or promotional expenses and/or image enhancing campaigns. Other companies, however, consider the racing program a more integral part of personnel development.
The stakes in racing are high: you can be subject to much public praise, or harsh criticism when things go wrong. Remember the $6.00 bearing that failed, causing the revolutionary #40 STP Turbine car to coast to a stop on lap 197 (of 200 total) during the 1967 Indianapolis 500, while leading the race?
Some of the most successful automotive, truck, and component manufacturers have used racing to develop personnel and corporate culture.
The nature of racing makes success and failure highly visible. This fact alone discourages some companies from taking part in the racing circuit. Especially those characterized by frequent meetings and overly shared responsibility for new products and marketing plans.
Some companies are able to operate successfully for years within this kind of environment, especially in times of high demand and weak competition. There's always the danger that their products will eventually be perceived as mediocre, which can lead to loss of production differentiation. It can be difficult to maintain profit margins when competitors with other “mediocre” products offer them for less.
Such concerns become more intense in mature industries, where there are multiple competitors with staying power. Smaller, evolutionary product refinements are the norm, rather than revolutionary re-designs or clearly advanced innovations.
One characteristic of many corporate racing programs is that the people are organized separately from normal corporate interfaces with support departments. Shortcuts are possible, time lines can be compressed, and otherwise impossible deadlines can be met, provided that responsible persons expend the extra time, effort and interpersonal skills necessary to follow their mission to completion. In short, it's a valuable training program for developing managerial skills, encouraging independent thought and action, and dealing with short-term feedback.
Nevertheless, the goal of racing is to win. Recent changes proposed for Formula 1 racing that would dictate a “standard” tire, in an attempt to lower costs for car owners, provides an interesting example. The two major tire suppliers for the race cars have publicly expressed concern or disappointment over the prospect of having no forum for displaying their latest advances. On the other hand, some say it's possible for a single brand, or “spec” tire race series, to challenge the tire maker to improve on previous performance and to work with chassis and suspension engineers to develop advances in the total vehicle handling package.
This sounds plausible, but it's hard to get beyond the fact that all races have winners and losers, and winners are more likely to catch the public eye. Not a bad concept for us all to consider when going about our daily businesses.